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North Vietnam: The Countryside

Go out into the field,” American officials last year, in blustery hectoring tones, were telling newcomers to Saigon, meaning get close to the fighting if you want to “connect” with the war. In North Vietnam, officials do not stipulate a tour of the combat zones as a condition for climbing aboard, “turning on,” or, as they would express it, “participating in the struggle of the Vietnamese people.” Indeed, if I had wanted to be taken to the 17th parallel, they would surely have said no: too long and dangerous a trip for a fleeting guest of the Peace Committee. And too uncertain, given the uneven pace of travel by night, in convoy, to plan ahead for suitable lodging, meals, entertainment. A reporter on the road can trust to pot-luck and his interpreter, but for guests hospitality requires that everything be arranged in advance, on the province and district, even the hamlet level, with the local delegates and representatives—stage-managed, a hostile critic would say, though, if so, why the distinction between guests and correspondents? Anyway, that is how it is, and I do not feel it as a deprivation that I failed to see the front lines. The meaning of a war, if it has one, ought to be discernible in the rear, where the values being defended are situated; at the front, war itself appears senseless, a confused butchery that only the gods can understand; at least that is how Homer and Tolstoy saw the picture, in close-up, though the North Vietnamese film studios certainly would not agree.

Nevertheless, it was a good idea—and encouraged by Hanoi officials—to get out of Hanoi and go, not into the field but into the fields. In the countryside, you see the lyrical aspect of the struggle, i.e., its revolutionary content. All revolutions have their lyrical phase (Castro with his men in an open boat embarking on the high seas), often confined to the overture, the first glorious days. This lyricism, which is pulsing in Paris today as I write, the red and black flags flying on the Sorbonne, where the revolting students have proclaimed a States General, is always tuned to a sudden hope of transformation—something everybody would like to do privately, be reborn, although most shrink from the baptism of fire entailed. Here in France the purifying revolution, which may be only a rebellion, is still in the stage of hymns to liberty, socialist oratory, mass chanting, while the majority looks on with a mixture of curiosity and tolerance. But in rural North Vietnam, under the stimulus of the US bombing, a vast metamorphosis, or, as the French students would say, re-structuring, is taking place not as a figure of speech but literally. Mountains, up to now, have not been moved, but deep caverns in them have been transformed into factories. Universities, schools, hospitals, whole towns have been picked up and transferred from their former sites, dispersed by stealth into the fields; streams have changed their courses. City children have turned into peasants. Nomad tribes—horse people—thanks to irrigation projects, have been settled as farmers and equipped with bicycles. Rice has been made to grow on dry land. However this revolution may be assessed finally in terms of economic cost and yield, whether it is temporary, a mere war epiphenomenon, or can continue as a permanent experiment, the fact of it is a plain wonder. No statistics recited in an office prepare the visitor for what is, to him, in part a delightful magic show, complete with movable scenery, changes of costume, disguises.

The Vietnamese themselves, not loath to moralize, look on it more solemnly, in terms of strictly drawn contrasts. “In the past,” they say, pointing to pale green rice fields laid out geometrically in squares and rectangles, “these fields made a crazy pattern.” “Yes,” I say, “like a crazy quilt”; regretting, in my heart, the classic pattern of individual small-scale ownership. Mr. Phan, who likes words (he is a veteran war correspondent), nods to himself, filing the phrase away, smiles broadly. “I myself,” he declares, “hate anything artificial but I make an exception of the rice fields.” We are in Hung Yen province, very flat, watery, famous for mulberries and for bees attracted by the very sweet fruit of the dragon’s eye tree, the Longan, which grows rank here. he makes another exception, though more doubtfully, of the ugly prefabricated honey combs, made of paraffin and beeswax, they show us in a movie. “In the past,” he says, translating the sound track, “honey production in this province was a fifth of what it is at present” “In the past” or “formerly” introduces every third sentence once you leave Hanoi. In the past, they say, this province had one small hospital; now, besides the province hospital, there is a dispensary in every village, and each district has a hospital of its own. “Formerly there was no second-level school in the entire province; now each village has a second-level school.”

IN THE PAST” and “formerly”=under the French or, in some contexts, under the old native landowners, “the cruel langs.” But it is not necessary to have known the “before” to appreciate the “after.” South Vietnam, under the Americans, is a present and terrible “before.” Last year I saw the filthy hamlets there and the refugee camps. Here everything I am shown is clean. It is true that I am on an official visit, but in the South, outside of Saigon, wherever I went, I was conducted by an AID man or a US or Friendly Forces officer—the exception being a tour of some refugee camps counted as “middling” by the social workers who were showing them. In the South, they cannot hide the dirt, disease, and misery. They would not know where to begin. It is true that in the North there is no fighting; a US invasion might help equalize things, spreading hunger and squalor.

At any rate, in the North I saw no children with sores and scalp diseases, no trachoma (it has been almost wiped out, according to the Ministry of Health), no rotten teeth or wasted consumptive-looking frames. You do not need plague shots to visit the North, nor cholera, for that matter. They say there is still some malaria in the Northwestern mountains. In the countryside, children and young people were radiant with health; as far as I could judge, everybody under forty was in peak physical condition. peasants and agricultural workers are favored by the rationing system and they are allowed a small percentage of land for their privately owned garden crops and animals; the difference is apparent, but not glaring—seeing them side by side with the desk-workers of Hanoi, you might put it down to the difference between the country and the city, outdoors and indoors.

It was clear that in the hamlets the people had few possessions: some cooking utensils, plates and cups, bedding, a Buddhist altar with a few ornaments, one change of clothes, the small children’s being usually patched and faded. The clothes in the South, chiefly army cast-offs and charitable donations, were better on the whole. In the house of a peasant family in the North, you wonder at the absence of bureaus, chests, trunks, until it comes to you that they have so little to store. On the other hand, they had new-driven wells and clean outhouse toilets, sometimes one to a family, sometimes public. There was no garbage around the houses or floating in the streams. There were no smells. Pretty new brick walks led into the hamlets we visited, and a central square was often paved with brick. I remember the little place of the Dai To Cooperative, under the shade of four interlacing secular banyan trees on top of which, like a tree-house, a lookout tower was perched with a boy from the militia on duty; nearby was the old hamlet bell. In this particular hamlet, an old man, speaking French, dressed in faded army khakis, evidently a gentle lang, was grafting new varieties onto lemon trees, which wore cloth bandages where the insertions had been made. He had come out of retirement, he said, to give his aged skills to his country: under his guidance, young papaya and grapefruit trees had been planted along the walks; he indicated a Rhode Island red rooster, scratching in the dirt, that he was trying to cross with the small local chickens to get a bigger breed.

Each hamlet or cooperative we visited boasted—and that is the word—a robust girl midwife, barely nubile herself. In the schools, we saw boys and girls with glasses, which gave them a surprisingly “Western” industrious look; I could not recall seeing a single child wearing glasses in the South. Formerly, our guides say, the peasantry was illiterate; now everyone can read and write. In fact the Ministry of Education speaks of pockets of illiteracy remaining in the north, near the Chinese border, but the people themselves believe that they have made education universal, the young teaching the old, if necessary, husbands teaching wives. Outside the schoolhouses, though, I did not see any books in the rural areas, and indeed, as in many farm communities, reading did not seem to be practicable, on account of the early risings and bedtimes and the poor lighting—it was impossible to read a line by the tiny kerosene lamp in a province guest-house. “Where do the people read?” I asked a woman district representative in an “ethnic” village, and the answer was: “In their offices, but mostly the newspapers. They do not have the time.” She was speaking of people like herself. The peasants listened to the radio. Yet here, as in most Communist countries, there is a great hunger for books, it is said—a hunger arising partly from a former scarcity and the novelty of print.

DURING OUR TRAVELS, the one lack I felt, in comparison with the South, was the sparkle and mischief of the little boys. In the North, the children were friendly but timid, unlike the infant black-marketers and bold suppliants of the South. I cannot say I missed having stones thrown at me or being pummeled for a cigarette, but I might have been glad to see a troop of naughty, fearless children tagging along behind us as we walked along the neat brick walks of a village cooperative, pausing to inspect a loom or a model pigsty. Here the children, even the rare show-offs, are models of conduct. A little girl, not much bigger than a doll, urged forward, entrusts her hand to mine: “Hello, Auntie.” “Auntie,” for the Vietnamese, is a term of respect, like “Uncle” (hence Uncle Ho; in the Vietnamese family, the senior uncle, not the father, is the source of authority), and to call an American woman “Aunt” is an act, for a child, of extraordinary docile faith. These country people, who have never before seen an American, unless possibly a shot-down pilot, seem to accept without question the notion that there are “good” Americans—something that, in their place, lacking further evidence, I might be disinclined to believe. Never in the North did I find a woman watching me with eyes full of hatred, though this happened often in the South. Here there was only curiosity and often a desire to touch, as with a new object. Young girls would press close to me, entwine hands or arms with me, particularly when we were lined up for a photograph or to listen to a speech of welcome. The absence of a common language created a “little” language of soft gazes, smiles, caresses. Goodbyes were like those at a school graduation, with parents (in this case our guide) waiting to perform the surgery of separation.

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